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How To Legally Protect A Screenplay

Adam Scott

A screenplay (also known as a working script or a shooting script) is generally considered the most difficult to produce, and therefore the most valuable. This article will discuss how to legally protect a screenplay.

When it comes to protecting a screenplay you must be thorough, consistent, and always remain aware of changes in law. Remember that a screenplay can be used as the basis of a screenplay, a book, or a movie.

You must protect it.

What is a screenplay?

Simply put, a screenplay is a story told through images, dialogue and dialogue, characters, and actions. This means that it has what's known as "organic literature," which allows the writer to become part of the screenplay, moving from one scene to another, from one character to another, and from one action to another.

In other words, the screenplay allows for the writer to become a character within the story, hence the name screenwriter.

As of today, there are two major screenplay schools: the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the American Film Institute School of Communication. Students must learn at least five professional screenwriting styles and must write a screenplay while they are still at the school.

There are also several great books out there, such as "Draft No. 5" by Sheila Heti, "Understanding Screenplay" by Robert McKee, "The Do's and Don't's of Screenwriting" by Wayne Madsen and "Written by Himself" by James Fox.

Also important to consider is that screenwriters are paid by the page, so as a screenwriter, you have the same amount of work to do as a page count increases.

What a script needsBlack text on gray background

You must protect your screenplay with any number of documents. Each script should have the following in addition to the basic production files:

  • Title – This name identifies the property and holds the copyright.
  • Copyright – This name identifies the property and holds the copyright.
  • Creator – This name identifies the writer(s). It can be the actual author of the script, or someone who has a contract with the property holder (like the director or producer).
  • Author – This name identifies the writer(s). It can be the actual author of the script, or someone who has a contract with the property holder (like the director or producer).
  • Producer – This is the person or entity that owns the property. It can be the film studio or production company.
  • Writer/director – This is the writer/director who is directing the film, or the person who is directing the film and should receive screen credit.
  • Budget – This document is a detailed financial analysis of the film that is based on your research and location choices.
  • Production – This is the contract between the producer and director that defines the size, number of cast and crew, and fees paid to those people.

Register with the WGAPhoto of man writing on whiteboard

Registering with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) means that you are establishing yourself as the originator of your script. While it is not the same as having a U.S. copyright, most writers register with the Guild.

It creates valid evidence in legal disputes. It also offers a reference list for reputable agents, other writers and legitimate studios.

WGA operates two offices: one in New York and one in L.A. The two territories are divided by the Mississippi River.

To register your script, treatment or synopsis, send $20 (WGA west, and they will hold it for five years) or $22 (WGA east, and they will hold it for 10 years) along with your completed work.

You can renew your registration and even register different drafts along with the finished script. Registering a treatment or synopsis is smart if you’re going to immediately present the idea to others.

The WGA also provides the following services: registration of your script, treatment or synopsis for a period of five to 10 years; pre-negotiated contracts if you sign with a producer or studio that is signatory to the WGA or acquire an agent that is signatory to the WGA; arbitration in matters regarding credits or payment issues; listing of agencies that are signatory to the WGA; a library where you can read scripts, and information about who represents certain writers.

ConclusionWoman typing on laptop

Every script is different, so it's important to learn the specific legal terms used within the industry. But to sum up:

  • A completed script (a) must have the title, (b) must have the creator, and (c) must have the writer.
  • A completed script is copyrighted when it has the creator's name, creator's copyright, and a date of creation.
  • A completed script can only be registered with the US Copyright Office for a noncommercial release if the script contains no unauthorized copyright infringement.

If you have any questions or want to learn more about film or screenwriting, I strongly suggest you read the following books:

  • "Hollywood Business & The U.S. Congress" by James Fox
  • "The Producer's Toolkit" by Wayne Madsen
  • "From Script to Screen" by Wayne Madsen
  • "The Do's & Don'ts of Screenwriting" by Robert McKee
  • "Written by Himself" by James Fox
  • "Draft No. 5" by Sheila Heti
  • "Understanding Screenplay" by Robert McKee
  • "The Star Wars Script" by M. J. Beresford (An earlier draft is available for free online)


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